Set Visit: Hellboy II
If you're visiting a real movie set for the first time, you can't do much better than HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMYan epic scale, large budget summer adventure from a director who's both a fanboy and an auteur. (That's quantity and quality, folks.) And that's exactly where I found myself in late October of last year; on the way to Budapest to tour the sets, chat up cast and crew, and attempt to conquer Hungary in the name of JoBlo.com. Now, after a lengthy and strict embargo (I swear I saw passages from the Book of Revelations in that confidentiality agreement), it's my pleasure to finally share with you guys all the cool stuff I saw. But first a little bit about the movie itself...
A lot has happened since we last saw the BPRD. Hellboy and Liz are living together and trying to make a serious relationship work. Abe Sapien finds himself a more indispensable member of the team this time around, as well as experiencing the human emotion called "love" for the first time. A new ectoplasmic psychic named Johann has come in to head up the BPRD (and maybe come between Liz and Red). And while all this drama is going on, the prince of the underworld land of Bethmoora has decided to rebel against his aging father and unleash an army of fantasy creatures and mythical proportions upon the world.
BUDAPEST AND THE KING'S COUNCIL CHAMBER
Despite a late night of dining with...er, next to Tim Curry and Ioan Gruffudd, and "studious film discussion" at local bars, we rose early the next afternoon for a bus tour of Budapest. Our lovely guide Rita regaled us with tales of the city's history and her ongoing war with the phone company, before dropping us off at the Kiscelli Museum. Here the King's Council Chamber set for HELLBOY II was being built inside an 18th century church and production designer Stephen Scott gave us a look at what they were working on. All along the walls of the stone sanctuary were enormous rusted boilers probably 20-30 feet high ("Antal & Co." was written on the front of each, not sure of the significance), and at the end of the room was a giant platform where King Balor would sit. His throne was being built in front of a large furnace pipe with CG fire to engulf his head later in post. Scott had been working on the film since mid-2006; with the first movie being shot in Prague, they had only been able to reuse a few select doors from the set, with pretty much everything else having to be built from scratch again. The King's chamber where we stood had been under construction for two weeks, with one more left to polish out the details before filming began.
Once our tour finished, we tearfully said goodbye to Rita and headed to a nearby restaurant to meet two of the film's more regal stars, Luke Goss and Anna Walton.
THE ROYAL TWINS
Over drinks (Note: "water with gas" isn't as funny as it sounds),
we spoke with the actors who play the twin prince and princess at the heart of the
You may remember Luke Goss from his first collaboration with Guillermo Del Toro in BLADE II, where he played the villainous reaper Nomak, dropper of multi-story elbows. However, European schmoes might know him better as one half of the 80s British boy band Bros. But before we could give Goss crap for his former profession, he assured us he doesn't regret leaving his pop star days behind at the age of 23 and enjoys acting much more. He does admit that the fan bases for pop idols and comic book movie stars couldn't be more different, with the latter more willing to "burn you alive."
In HELLBOY II, Goss stars as Prince Nuada, a role written for him specifically by Del Toro. And in "traditional Del Toro fashion," Goss says the Prince is a well-rounded bad guy driven by internal conflictin this case pride for his people. While the part was tailored to the 39 year old actor, it wasn't a walk in the park by any means. Goss first trained 8 weeks for the rigorous stunts and fight scenes, specifically with weapons such as swords and spears. Once filming began, he then had to endure 5 hours of makeup every day to cover his entire face with a thin layer of scarring, an ordeal he swears to never do again in the future (except for Guillermo). And you can add to that a brutal schedule7 weeks straight of 21 hour days, including a wake up call at 11:45 PM. But Goss says the hard work is worth it for the finished film, which, unlike a lot of typical big budget fare, won't require audiences to forgive it's faults in order to enjoy it. He attributes that to director Del Toro "By sheer excellence, he's won the game."
The name Anna Walton might not mean much to you now, but chances are you'll hear more from her in 2008, as she appears in two of the year's big sci-fi fantasy movies: HELLBOY II and THE MUTANT CHRONICLES. A former model and Oxford graduate, Walton was also unfairly down to earth and genuinely excited about her role in the sequel as Princess Nuala, the "good girl" counterpart to Luke Goss' evil prince. Her character also has an unlikely love interest in Abe Sapien, who she claimed wasn't hard to fall in love with, save for the gills. While acting as a romantic figure and moral compass for the inhabitants of the film, Walton deeply regretted not being involved with any of the movie's action spectacle. And when we asked what sequence she was most excited to see in the finished film, she said the "majestic and cavernous" Golden Army set where they staged an action scene using gymnasts and tumblers that should be "phenomenal."
Walton admitted to not being too in to comic books before the film, but after seeing the first HELLBOY and PAN'S LABYRINTH she wanted to work with Del Toro. And it looks like some of the director's enthusiasm has rubbed off on the actress, who now considers herself a fan, having just finished Neil Gaiman's "Death: The High Cost of Living" (and aching to be in the impending film adaptation).
With bellies full of delicious Hungarian delicacies, we made the hour drive outside of Budapest to the brand new Korda Studios, currently home to its flagship production, HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY. Korda only recently opened their first four soundstages in April of this year, with construction on schedule to complete the rest of the studio by early 2008. It was around 9 PM before we were waved through the gate, but the place was alive and kicking with hundreds of HELLBOY II crew members, all of whom were on their third week of grueling all-night shoots.
THE ART DEPARTMENT
As we waited in the lobby of the main building for our press passes I was surprised at how normal everything was that is, until I realized the thing I was leaning against was a a gigantic golden mechanical egg, which we would later find out was a member of the Golden Army. Moments later two PAs walked by carrying a large pair of seriously demonic angel wings. Suck me sideways; I was on the set of a movie.
After a few minutes we were met once again by production designer Stephen Scott, who took us on a tour of the Art Department and production offices. Aside from all the expected rooms and hallways filled with drawings, sketches and models, here are some highlights we saw:
- An awesome creature "police lineup" (think USUAL SUSPECTS, but with monsters), featuring scale drawings of everything from tiny fairies to large Stone Giants to building-sized Elementals. Most of the creatures in HELLBOY II were the original brainchildren of Del Toro and Mike Mignola.
- Designs and models for a few of the major set pieces, including the Auction House that is the stage for the film's first action sequence, the Troll Market that was built full scale inside a local stone quarry, and the Golden Army chambera massive cavern filled with giant egg-like warriors. (See the above pic.) The Chamber took over a nearby stadium for five months.
- Doors marked "Young Hellboy" and "Baby Room." Young Hellboy probably has something to do with the film's flashback sequence featuring Professor Broom aka John Hurt. For more on that, wait for our interview with Guillermo Del Toro.
- Bits and pieces of a uniquely devised troll alphabet scrawled on the walls
- A look at some of the architectural influences for the fantasy world of Bethmoora, which Scott described as being "very curvy" like Indian and Moroccan buildings.
THE ANGEL OF DEATH'S LAIR
The unit publicist next led us on to one of the large soundstages and as we passed by a rack full of Hellboy's trademark brown coats and a Doug Jones double decked out in full Abe Sabien makeup, it finally hit me that I was about to witness some movie magic. Eventually we ended up at the home of the Angel of Death, a giant cocoon-shaped dwelling, almost like an oversized wasp's nest, that was set up against a greenscreen backdrop. The outside entrance to the lair was made to look like a graveyard, with cobwebs and decomposing corpses littered on the ground. The interior was dark and dirty, with walls that were lined with rows and rows of large amber-colored jars, each containing a dead soul. (It was very much in keeping with Del Toro's "things in jars" motif that was prevalent in DEVIL'S BACKBONE and PAN'S LABYRINTH.) Also, inside the lair were Selma Blair, a Hellboy double, and Doug Jones in his Angel of Death costumeand all three being directed by Guillermo Del Toro.
After a few moments of soaking everything in, Del Toro walks over, shakes my hand and starts shooting the shit with everyone like we were old drinking buddies. The man was obviously exhausted (this was day 105 of shooting), but once he got going he didn't stop; telling us about the shoot so far, what to see while we were in Budapest, what he had planned for the future, and more. (For all the juicy details, check back next week for the full interview!)
We chatted in between takes and watched him direct the actors on the monitors. It was a few minutes before I realized that the man sitting in front of the monitors, less than a foot from my person, was Oscar-winning director of photography Guillermo Navarro. I gathered up the courage to tell him how much I loved his work in PAN'S LABYRINTH and then let him get back to his job of making this movie look entirely kickass.
You see this kind of thing on DVD special features all the time, but there's something different about watching a real scene being shot live in front of you. Del Toro and Navarro would look at each detail, spending several minutes just getting the best position between the two characters in camera, ensuring the most visually interesting composition possible. This is their fifth movie together and the level of trust and high expectations is apparent. And because this particular shot involved some practical effects with the angel wings, Del Toro insisted on rehearsals, even after they were ready to shoot. In all, we spent over an hour watching them film, and they got through about 5 lines of dialogue. That attention to detail explains why they've been working 21 days on the Angel of Death sequence, which is about 4 minutes of the final film, and why they're clocking in on a grand total 120-day shoot.
As for the scene itself, I'm at an impasse here: what we saw being shot was very cool, but it occurs at a very pivotal point in the movie and carries with it a fairly big SPOILER WARNING.
First, here's a short SPOILER-FREE version:
Stuff happens and Doug Jones' costume will haunt my nightmares forever.
And below is a detailed SPOILER-FILLED VERSION!!!:
In the center of the lair, Hellboy is laying on the ground, injured to the point of what looks like near death. Liz Sherman holds his hand, teary eyed, when she is startled by the Angel of Death. Theres a quick shot of her in the trailer, but it doesnt do justice to how creepy and unsettling the character was in person. First off the Angel is a female, with a disturbingly feminine skeletal figure, long black hair and dress-like robes. The top half of her face looks like a flat plate of sheer bone, as if her skull exploded outward, with no eyes and disgusting rotted teeth. If that wasn't enough, she has wingslarge black feathery wings that hold dozens of eyes that blink and move when she speaks. All together, it made the Pale Man look like a Care Bear.
So the Angel appears in front of Liz, spreads her wings, and in a raspy voice tells her that she can save ol' Red, but doing so will come at a great price and sacrifice. When Liz agrees, the Angel says, "You will suffer more than anyone." To which Liz responds, "I'll deal with it."
We watched them film this scene a few times. During one take, Doug leaned back slightly and nearly crushed himself under the weight of his wings. Because of the motorized eyes and the massive span, the angel's wings weigh over 40 pounds and have to be hooked up to a wire rig so that Doug doesn't get adult onset scoliosis. While the stunt team set up to redo the wing harness, we departed from the Angel of Death's lair.
Random Transitional Story:
It was close to two in the morning now and people were starting to get hungry, when one of the publicists began enchanting us with tales of delicious cookies, cakes and coffee. And thus began our adventure across Korda Studios in search of sustenance. Along the way we somehow lost half the journalists in our group, but the few worthy survivors made it to the craft services tent where in-costume cast and crew members were sitting down for "lunch." (Night shoots screw up everybody's schedule.) And I don't know if this was a Hungarian thing or a misinterpreted recipe, but at some point we were exposed to what we were told was cheesecake...except that it was made with ricotta instead of cream cheese. Good times in Budapest!
MASS DESTRUCTION IN NEW YORK CITY
We visited the New York City street set two times: once on our tour with Stephen Scott when it was empty and available for detailed inspection, and again when it was packed full of cast and crew as Guillermo prepared to shoot a giant action sequence.
The set, built outside on a studio backlot, was a full scale replica of a New York City block, specifically one underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. And it was obvious some bad juju went down here. Cars were crushed, burned and stacked on top of each other. Windows were smashed. Street signs were flattened or ripped from the ground. And on one end of the block, a massive hole stood where a large monster called an Elemental had crawled out and was showing Hellboy a bad time. The whole thing took 14 weeks to build and the level of detail was unbelievablefrom hand drawn graffiti ("Ghost Pig!") to real newspapers in the stands to the movie theater showing SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY (a nod to John Landis). We even watched crew members bring out individual pieces of broken car parts and sprinkle fresh shattered glass on the street.
It was cold as hell when we returned a second time later that night, but our shivering bones were forgotten when we were met by an excited and energetic Guillermo Del Toro. The man was overseeing the prep work for a major stunt involving Hellboy getting to the top of a building so he can fire a gun at the Elemental, a new weapon delightfully referred to as the Big Baby. While we talked, Guillermo had someone bring out the Big Baby for us to see and it definitely lived up to the first part of its name. Like the Samaritan, it was insanely large and fit right in to the comic book world with its six cannon sized barrels and matching ammunition. As Del Toro demonstrated locking and loading the sucker, he pointed it at me, which was one of the greatest honors of my life.
As the night wore on and the crew prepared to shoot the sequence, we bid farewell to the busy filmmaker and prepared to leave Korda and HELLBOY II, but not before one last stop
CREATURE EFFECTS WITH SPECTRAL MOTION
At this point it was after 3 AM and although we were tired, nobody wanted to leave without seeing all the cool creature suits we'd heard so much about. There were pieces of Hellboy and Abe scattered about, but everyone focused their attention on the new characters made for the sequel. First up was the character that Del Toro raved about, the Prince's oversized bodyguard Wink. Unfortunately the full Wink suit had been dismantled for the night but we did see his head (think a troll with muttonchops and tusks), as well as his enormous armored arms, complete with mechanical hands that could shoot out on a chain (presumably to hit someone) and then retract back. This action was amazingly all done practical within the suit, something to keep in mind next year when you're seeing it on the big screen.
Next we got a demonstration of Johann, one of the main new characters, who is essentially a suit full of ectoplasm. Del Toro originally conceived him as he is in the comics (a suit with a light bulb for a head), but due to costly CGI the idea was scrapped. Instead, Johann is done practically, with a noggin that's half bubble, half gas mask and fills up with expressive lighted smoke. The working effect is very cool and should look awesome on film.
Finally we got quick peeks at a few of the other characters that populate the world, including:
- The Chamberlain: The third character played by Doug Jones, who is 8 ft. tall and incredibly skinny, with remote controlled (and eerily realistic) hands and fingers.
- Cathedralhead: An alien-looking creature that literally has an ornate Catholic church for a cranium.
- Fragglewump: A troll with wild stringy hair, huge expressive eyes and an awesome name.
All the heads had radio controlled faces, which were incredibly expressive when demonstrated by the Spectral Motion team. As the guys showed us their stuff, they described HELLBOY II as "Guillermo's Harryhausen film," which makes complete sense. And despite Halloween being a few days away, nobody would let me take any of the costumes home to wear.
And thus ended my time with HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY and Budapest. I got to see massive destruction on a Hulk-like scale, as well as the filming of a very intimate and important moment in the potential trilogy. Just being somewhere where movies are made was magical enough to leave me in a perpetual state of "Holy crap!" the entire time.
Thanks to the fine folks at Universal for putting this all together and for fulfilling one of my lifelong dreams: having somebody waiting for me at the airport with a sign that has my name on it. I can die a complete and satisfied man now.
HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY opens on July 11, 2008. And trust me; you're gonna wanna see this one, folks.
Stay tuned next week for our on-set interviews with Selma Blair, Doug Jones and a
massive chat with Guillermo Del Toro!
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